At first Lisbon reminds me of Disneyland. No, there are no colourfully clad cartoon characters wandering around, but the streets down by the harbour are completely flooded, and the taxi ride to our hotel is like riding Splash Mountain.
The cab driver shows little concern for the water-clogged streets and powers through them forcing the half-metre high water to spray up around the car. At home we would batten down the hatches in conditions like this, but the Lisbon locals just carry on. The bohemian city is one of the oldest in Europe and I suppose bad drainage is a small price to pay for the legacy of historic houses and the mosaic of cobbled streets that give the city so much of its character.
Besides, the city has survived much worse. In 1755, an earthquake flattened central Lisbon, and while that part of the city has been rebuilt, the scars of the tragedy can still be seen today.
A few hours later, the city emerges from the deluge in a glow of newly washed glory. Spread across steep hillsides that overlook a stunning harbour, and sporting a Mediterranean climate, cosmopolitan Lisbon is like no other place in Europe. While modernity has made its mark, the city clings proudly to its historic past, and its architecture pays homage to the Arabic and European influences that make this great city what it is today.
In the winding streets, the bright yellow 28 tram transports tourists and locals alike through the colourful bairros (neighbourhoods) of the iconoclast city. From Bairro Alto, where tiny bars and restaurants bring the city''s nightlife to its peak, to the village-like streets of the old Alfama district where strains of gypsy-like Fado singing fill the air, the disparate neighbourhoods of Lisbon are worth taking the time to explore.
Despite it's love of all things old, the city is decidedly youthful in spirit. From decadent clubs throbbing with heavy bass, to the sound of relaxed jazz trickling from backstreet bars, Lisbon is home to some of the best nightlife in Europe. For a taste of the outrageous, Cabaret Maxime - once a luxury cabaret and later an infamous brothel - is one of the city's most interesting nightspots. With darkened booths and red velvet curtains, the club pays tribute to an era when the word ''nightclub'' evoked images of live music, cocktails and burlesque beauties that graced the stage every night.
However, the bohemian air doesn't mean Lisboêtas don't have a taste for the finer things in life.
Another indicator of Lisbon's youthful vibe is the colourful street art that can be found on every corner in some form or another. Rather than denigrating the neighbourhood like it might in another city, Lisbon's graffiti adds to the bohemian spirit of the otherwise modern city. On a walk up towards Sao Jorge Castelo (Saint Jorge Castle) from the old Alfama district, I come across an outdoor graffiti gallery in the ruins of an old building. Among the images that now decorate the dilapidated walls, someone has painted in big, bright script, Boemed Amo Lisboa - Bohemia loves Lisbon.
However, the bohemian air doesn''t mean Lisboêtas don't have a taste for the finer things in life. The city is home to some of the wealthiest people in Europe, and the charming bairro of Chiado, with its sophisticated theatres, bookshops, old-style cafés and antique jewellery stores, is an elegant alternative to some of Lisbon''s more rustic neighbourhoods. Add in the presence of luxurious international brands like Hermes and Cartier, and Chiado is up there with some of the most prestigious shopping areas in Europe.
It is in this cultivated district that you''ll find Tavares, the oldest restaurant in Portugal and one of the oldest in the world. Opened in 1784, over the years the restaurant has been a meeting point for Lisbon''s intellectual elite, prestigious bohemians and famous artists. Paying homage to a bygone era, the restaurant''s mirrored walls and extravagant chandeliers make the otherwise modern meal a glamorous affair, and today it is still one of the most desired eateries in the city.
A short walk away as you head down Rua do Carmo towards the more touristy Baixa district, a red and white sign proclaims ''I Gelati Più Fini Del Mondo'', which roughly translates as ''The Best Ice Cream In The World''. And I am NOT going to argue with them! Sitting on a white leather couch in the red and white striped world of Santini''s, I tuck into a little cup with one scoop of cinnamon and one of chocolate, and savour the delicate flavouring on my tongue. It''s divine! I have no doubt that each of the 28 other flavours are equally as delicious.
Down in the harbour-side district of Belém, there is one store so famous that it almost always has a queue of people trailing from its front door. It''s Café Pasteis de Belém, and for nearly 200 years, the patisserie has sold the delectable custard pastries that are known as Pasteis de Belém, or Portuguese tarts. The queue is long, but the reward is delicious and there''s nothing better than discovering the nearby Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery (both UNESCO world heritage sites) with a warm pasteis in hand.
Luxury Stay... Palacio Belmonte
|Built on the Moorish wall of Sao Jorge Castelo, this stunning 15th century castle has had the international press abuzz with adoration for over a decade. With 11 sumptuously decorated suites and views of the old city and the river, it will be hard to find a more luxuriously atmospheric location to sleep in all of Lisbon.
Words and Photos by Nella Scott 2/6/11